Twenty years ago this week, a Brooklyn-born Israeli settler named Baruch Goldstein walked into the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron and opened fire with his army-issued assault rifle, killing 29 Palestinians and wounding 150 others. In the following days, Israeli soldiers shot and killed at least 20 more Palestinians and injured hundreds of others as protests erupted across the occupied territories. The Israeli government convened a commission of inquiry that found Goldstein had acted alone and deemed there was no deeper problem, despite repeated warning signs that he posed a serious danger prior to the massacre. A year later a Jewish extremist and admirer of Goldstein assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in an attempt to stop the peace process.
Goldstein and Rabin’s killer, Yigal Amir, were both followers of the notorious Rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahane, a fellow Brooklynite of Goldstein’s who advocated a Greater Israel and the expulsion of all Arabs from Israel and the occupied territories, founded the Jewish Defense League in New York before immigrating to Israel in the early 1970s where he formed the Kach political party. At the time of Kahane’s assassination in 1990, Kach had been barred from Israeli politics for its overt racism and extremism.
Although generally not as horrifically lethal as the events of February 25, 1994, settler violence against Palestinians has risen steadily in the intervening years, particularly over the last few. So-called “price tag attacks” against Palestinians and their property, including holy sites, have become routine. A culture of hate has been encouraged by the impunity granted to Jewish extremists who attack Palestinians. Meanwhile, settlers and Kahanists have risen to powerful positions in the government and a steady stream of racist laws directed at Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up about 20 percent of the population, have been passed by the Israeli parliament. Numerous edicts from influential rabbis on the government payroll have been issued calling on Jews not to rent housing to Arabs, not to mix socially or romantically with non-Jews, and even condoning the murder of non-Jewish children and babies on the grounds they might grow up to pose a threat to Jews and the state.
Last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who frequently complains of alleged Palestinian incitement and glorification of “terrorists,” appointed Moshe Feiglin of his Likud party to be a deputy speaker of the Israeli parliament. A few weeks earlier, the ultra-rightist who advocates paying Palestinians to leave Israel and the occupied territories and was once considered on the fringes of the party, told an interviewer: “I can definitely say that the slogan 'Kahane tzadak - Kahane was right' has proven itself many times.”
Netanyahu’s foreign minister and leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, was briefly a member of Kach decades ago and still espouses views that echo Kahane’s. Following the death last fall of the racist spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who declared that non-Jews “were born only to serve us… only to serve the People of Israel,” and ruled that Jewish doctors shouldn’t treat non-Jews on the Sabbath, even if the situation is life threatening, Netanyahu lauded him as “one of the great Torah sages of our generation.” President Shimon Peres called Yosef “my teacher, my rabbi, my friend.”
The third largest party in Israel, The Jewish Home, which sits in Netanyahu’s coalition government, is led and supported by far-right Jewish nationalists and fundamentalists like party leader and Minister of Religious Services Naftali Bennett, Deputy Minister for Religious Services Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan, and Rabbi Dov Lior, head of the West Bank settler rabbi council and chief rabbi of the settlement of Kiryat Arba, where Goldstein lived. In elaborating on his opposition to same sex and interreligious marriage, in late December Ben Dahan told an interviewer that “a Jew always has a much higher soul than a gentile, even if he’s gay.” Lior, who has an appalling history of virulently racist statements and religious rulings against Arabs and others, is one of the most influential figures in the religious Zionist movement. Following Goldstein’s killing spree, Lior praised him as “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust.” He was also reportedly the source of religious rulings judging Rabin a traitor to Jews, providing the theological justification for his murder.
Given all this and much more, it’s no surprise that Netanyahu refuses the request of the US and Palestinian negotiators to re-establish the trilateral committee on incitement created during the 1990s under Oslo, preferring instead to make a show of dubious claims of Palestinian incitement in a cynical attempt to distract from the illegal actions and incitement of his own government and citizens.
Today, 20 years after Baruch Goldstein cut down so many innocent lives in a burst of hateful rage, the poisonous anti-Arab racism that turned him into a mass murderer is alive and well in Israel. Hopefully, it won’t take another similar tragedy to shake the world’s conscience and turn empty words of condemnation into concrete action to protect the millions of Palestinians who live at the mercy of Israeli settlers and soldiers in the occupied territories.
Ashrawi is a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and head of the P.L.O. Department of Culture and Information.